Spread the love, share the wealth and eat well while doing it. These concepts drive the successful business model adapted by Ilyse Rathet and Ron Post, co-founders of Ritrovo Italian Regional Foods in Seattle.
The couple has spent years carefully cultivating top-quality, regionally inspired, authentic Italian food items, from olive oil to pine nuts, fig jam to a truffle-salt blend. The foods they sell are produced in small batches, according to the season, and use local, even heirloom, ingredients. They know their growers and their products, and each tells a distinctive story.
Even the company name was carefully selected: Ritrovo means a reunion or a “re-gathering” of friends as well as the act of refinding something that has been lost.
As with many small businesses, Ritrovo germinated from the tiny seed of an idea. In 1993, after receiving graduate degrees from the University of Washington to teach English as a foreign language, the duo moved to Italy where Rathet had received a Fulbright scholarship to train Italian teachers in didactics. But within six months, funding was cut and she had to scramble to find other teaching assignments. At night, the couple started taking classes with Slow Food, learning more about indigenous ingredients, regional traditions and the value of diversity.
“It was a juggling act but we managed to stay in Rome for five more years,” said Rathet. “Our interactions with Slow Food grew. We took more classes, we went on trips. Each fall, we went to different festivals, or sagre, where we learned about polenta or chestnuts.”
Year by year, the couple’s gastronomic education intensified. Soon, they added wine to the mix, completing the one-and-one-half year sommelier program offered by the Associazione Italiana Sommelier. “In the States, when you reach a certain level of sophistication with food or wine, there is an element of elitism, of snobbery,” said Rathet. “Not so in Italy. Even at the highest levels, we were always warmly welcomed. These experiences gave us courage. We started to think: Maybe we could start our own wine and food export business.”
After some soul-searching, the couple returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1999. “We did not want to leave Italy,” said Rathet. “We truly loved it there, but the reality is that the U.S. is a great place to start a business. We did not have family connections in Italy and it would have been very difficult for us to get established there.”
In its infancy, Ritrovo was housed in the couple’s Seattle apartment. “In those days, everything was shipped by international freight,” said Rathet. “We’d have these big trucks off-loading product in the street. We converted an extra bedroom and a family room into storage and we worked from there.”
The couple’s big break came in 2001 when Epicure Market in Miami Beach submitted Ritrovo’s zolfino white bean appetizer to the Specialty Food Association where it won first prize in its category. The resulting publicity put the company on the map. Since that time, Ritrovo has received 22 finalist or winner awards from the trade association. In June 2015, a Ritrovo product once again brought home gold―this time for Ritrovo Selections organic apple balsamic vinegar.
Ritrovo celebrates biodiversity in all its regional foods, working with growers and producers from Alto Adige to Puglia. The company sells more than 300 specialty products through a network of 800 retailers and distributors, such as Williams Sonoma. About 60 percent are under the private label, Ritrovo Selections, and many are certified organic.
One of their producers is Radici, located in the Tuscan hamlet of Loro Ciuffenna and owned by Sandra Masi and her husband Viviano Venturi. “Sandra and Viviano come from humble roots in Tuscany,” said Rathet. “They have four kids. Viviano grew up in a very poor village where the mainstay crop was chestnuts. Today, he wild-gathers elderberries for us in the Pratomagno Hills to make the most amazing jam. It’s so great, it’ a limited offering. Over the years, even though their business has grown, they have stayed true to who they are.”
Paolo Pescia is another Ritrovo supplier, a passionate second-generation honey maker who practices nomadic beekeeping. Pescia transports his beehives to seasonally flowering zones and national parks in the Tuscan coastal hills. All of his honey production is done by hand, even scraping the honeycombs. His company, Apicoltura Dr. Pescia, uses acacia, wild heather, cardoon flower, sunflower, blackberry and chestnuts to create a lush, richly flavored product.
Ritrovo also promotes partnerships between producers and regions. “If you know anything about Italians,” said Rathet, “you know that is not an easy thing to do! Recently, we found an awesome baker in Matera and an Abruzzo company that makes an amazing herb blend. We got the two of them together and soon we will be offering flavored breadcrumbs to our customers.”
Ritrovo also supports businesses and events in its own backyard. The company has partnered with several Pacific Northwest companies to develop new products, and they are long-time supporters of local cultural entities, such as Seattle’s popular Cinema Italian Style film festival, now in its 7th year, and the Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association.
For more information, visit www.ritrovo.com or call 1-866-RITROVO (748-7686).